How South Riverkeeper Science May Transform Future Decisions
Thursday, 21 February 2013 18:33

By STEVE GIBB, Spin Sheet | 0 comments

The South River Federation’s Diana Muller uses data as a shield to protect Chesapeake Bay water quality. As the riverkeeper, her approach to monitoring the river has the potential to transform how others across the Chesapeake region study, assess, and make policy decisions about the quality of the nation’s largest estuary.

 Muller, who has more than 20 years of laboratory experience in microbiology and chemistry, has established 22 monitoring stations in the tidal areas of the South River; that includes creeks and streams as well as seven mainstem stations in “tidally influential”  tributaries.  Currently, the South River only has one monitoring station that makes it into the State of Maryland’s water quality assessment reports. But Department of Natural Resources (DNR) scientists have checked and rechecked her work over the last three and half years and have now agreed to fold the South River Federation’s science into the official state assessment.

This is a first. So far, no other nongovernmental organization’s data has been accepted by DNR. For its 2014 department “integrated report” on Bay water quality impairments, Muller’s extensive database will provide a much more detailed picture of the conditions  and challenges faced by the South River. This acceptance may herald a new era in dataintensive and more evidence-based water quality assessments based on the tireless work of people like Muller, her intern Katie Geiger, and her corps of volunteer stream  watchers. The data is also being used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay program. Similar efforts may be expanded to other western shore rivers and ultimately, the whole Bay watershed, Muller says.

Muller’s monitoring has unfortunately revealed that some of the South River’s best gunkholes and anchorages are impaired. Many a Bay sailor has holed up in Harness Creek, which features one of the western shore’s curliest and most protected gunkholes. Monitoring has shown that water quality concerns, some related to septic-use in area residences, are worrisome. The riverkeeper is currently working with the community to inform and educate it about the benefits of transitioning from septic systems.

But the impairment there is minor compared with Church Creek, another gunkhole west of Harness but also on the north shore. Muller says “almost nothing lives” in the creek except jellyfish, which thrive on the nutrients that wash in from the many parking lots and strip malls along Route 665, a major thoroughfare to Annapolis. Muller says that 37 percent of the land in this area is pavement, which allows rain to quickly rush into the creek carrying petroleum, nutrients, and chemicals and undercutting soft sediment.

Church Creek is a restoration priority; the South River Federation is collaborating with Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and U.S. Naval Academy scientists to do a “before and after study” of a large restoration effort underway in the creek. The South River Federation will install “step pools” to slow stormwater and re-plant white cedars in the area under a conservation easement a property owner granted. But the effort is a multi-year intervention involving lots of bulldozers, trucks full of sand and gravel, and permitting all supported by more than $1 million in funding from DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The South River Federation is also focused on Broad Creek and just received a permit to restore the Davidsonville Wildlife Sanctuary. The creek has high ammonia and bacteria levels and low dissolved oxygen levels in summer, conditions which will have to be   addressed before volunteers can do plantings and other restoration work. Muller also highlights data showing that “hypoxia” or the “dead zone” in the Bay affects more than just the “trench” in the bottom water of the central Bay but has been found in the entire water column at levels of concern as a result of stormwater, septic systems, and sewer discharges. She recommends patience when it comes to the nutrient problems in the Bay, not because action is not warranted now, but because it can take agricultural  applications 20 years to flush out into tidal regions where the chemicals remain active for years.
 
The real test of her work, she says, is to build a quality-assured and qualitycontrolled dataset of the South River that is “legally defensible” by March 1. EPA pollution caps on waterbodies—known as Total Maximum Daily Loads—are being challenged in court by the Farm Bureau and other stakeholders. Lawyers on all sides are watching as this and other new information enter the picture. Through  Muller’s work—and efforts by her oceanographer husband who works at the Naval Academy—the data manifested to support
assessments of the South River could have a transformative effect. The monitoring her organization conducts for the South River is unprecedented in quality and quantity. This rich information base has the potential to enhance critical Bay decisions for decades to come as the evidence base for more nuanced public policy debates, court reviews, and regulatory decisions greatly expands. southriverfederation

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